The affordable housing dilemma
By Alexandra Cline, Rachel Hicks and Bryn McCarthy
Donna Stuples, a cook at Washington and Lee University, said she is determined to buy a home.
“I want a house,” she said. “I want something that’s mine.”
Stuples, who works in one of W&L’s dining facilities, and her 15-year-old son live in the Hunt Ridge Apartments, a low- to moderate-income housing complex off Thoroughbred Circle in Rockbridge County near the horse center.
“Everybody in this building, we all get along,” she said. “Everybody’s quiet. Everyone stays to themselves.”
Even so, Stuples said she’s looking for a new place in Rockbridge County, not Lexington.
“You can’t find anything because everything costs so much,” she said.
There should’ve been more options available for people like Stuples who are seeking affordable housing after W&L moved its juniors back on campus in fall of 2016 and out of rental units in the city and county.
But that didn’t happen, largely because asking prices of houses remained high despite the amount of work it would take to fix them up.
The median value of an owner-occupied home is $252,500 in Lexington and $197,200 in Rockbridge County. But the median household income is $37,309 in Lexington and $53,918 in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It also can cost more than $400 per square foot to fix up an old house, said Tim Welsh, owner of Welsh Construction, a local company that specializes in home renovations.
Rent isn’t cheap either. The median gross rent is $785 per month, according to the Census Bureau.
Lexington has three affordable housing complexes within city limits, but each has a waitlist.
The waitlists can exceed 15 to 20 people and are common at all of the complexes, property managers said.
“Even when somebody applies here, I suggest making sure that this is not the only place you apply,” said Marylin Alexander, the property manager at Mountainview Terrace who is also a member of the Lexington City Council. “We have probably about 20 applicants on file who are in need of housing or who want housing who I will not be able to assist in any short-term basis. Only three households out of the 20 we'll be able to help.”
The apartments at Mountainview Terrace are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with what are known as Section 8 vouchers. The voucher program provides federal aid to low-income families in need of housing. To qualify to live at Mountainview Terrace, renters must meet HUD Section 8 income guidelines.
HUD has three categories of income limits: very low; extremely low; and low. For a family of four, the very low income limit is $29,800, the extremely low limit is $25,750, the low limit is $47,700.
“I like to be able to sit out on the porch at night,” said 79-year-old resident Nuwassa Smith. “I can go to bed at night, leave my door unlocked. I don’t have to worry about anybody coming in here. I don’t have to worry about locking my car.”
The Lexington House Apartments, located on Houston Street, also are subsidized by HUD Section 8 vouchers. To qualify to live there, residents must meet Section 8 income guidelines and be elderly or handicapped. Lexington House is comprised of 78 one-bedroom units.
Windemere Apartments, located on Wallace Street, were constructed with financing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Department of Rural Development. The building consists of 38 one-bedroom units, and residents must be elderly or disabled to live there. Rent at Windemere is based on income, in accordance with federal limits—no more than $20,900 per person.
“When I walk in here, it’s just peaceful … it’s quiet,” said 63-year-old Martha Newcomer, who has lived at Windemere for about two years. “I love it. If your power goes out, they’re right up to see you.”
In Rockbridge County, there are also affordable multi-family units and options for the elderly and disabled.
Hunt Ridge Apartments, a 73-unit complex for low- to moderate-income residents, is located just outside city limits. Hunt Ridge offers one-, two- and three-bedroom options. It also has a waitlist of 17 people, as of mid-May 2019.
Old and older
Realtor Leslie Giles said it’s easy to find a house in Lexington if you can pay $400,000 or more.
But she said it’s rare to find a house with a $100,000 price tag.
Welsh, the owner of Welsh Construction, said many homes in Lexington need to be gutted. Houses frequently have problems with plumbing, electrical systems and windows, among other issues.
"It’s so expensive as far as the amount of work that has to be done to get the house up-to-date,” he said.
Welsh said 75 to 80 percent of his clients are retirees who want to remodel a Lexington home.
“They love the character of the older home, the quirks of an older home and maybe the location of where that older home is in the city,” he said.
About 32 percent of housing units in Lexington were built before 1940, and over 75 percent were built before 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lexington homeowners must seek approval from the Architectural Review Board to make major changes to houses in the city’s residential historic district, which encompasses most of what is considered the downtown area.
The architectural board’s rules also apply to businesses with plans to remodel. Businesses must seek approval to change the color of the paint on a building, while residential homeowners can’t build an addition or demolish any adjacent structure.
“Any time you do any kind of improvement on the house, like windows or roof change, typically you have to get a permit,” said Carroll Comstock, a homeowner on South Main Street.
The board’s rules are so strict that even an eyesore like the Sheridan House at 201 N. Randolph St. is protected by its historic status. On Feb. 10, 2016, the Sheridan House was gutted by fire.
“We can deny the right to demolish the property, and we did on the basis that maybe there could be someone who could come and afford to repair [the Sheridan House],” said Robin LeBlanc, chair of the Architectural Review Board. “It’s historically significant and from our opinion it shouldn’t be lost.”
There also is not a lot of new construction in Lexington. In 2018, there were only 45 house starts, according to city planning documents. Most of them were at Kendal, an upscale retirement community.
That means the only option to live in Lexington is to renovate an existing house, said Max Ivankov, owner of MaxMark Homes.
“The quality … of housing is limited and there’s just no new construction,” he said.
Trials and tribulations
Lexington tried to create another affordable housing community eight years ago, known as Thompson’s Knoll. But government guidelines were so strict that few people qualified.
To live there, residents needed to meet Section 8 income requirements. But they also had to pass a credit check. Income for a four-person household couldn’t exceed $43,300.
Thompson’s Knoll was supposed to include 24 energy-efficient, affordable homes for low- to moderate-income residents. Lexington received a $700,000 grant from the state in 2011 to fund the purchase of 4.4 acres and to build infrastructure.
At first, Thompson’s Knoll was a partnership among Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity, the Threshold Housing Commission and a private developer, Thompson’s Knoll Partners, LLC.
The city had two years to finish the development but missed the deadline. By 2015, only four of the houses had been completed.
“It was almost like being set up for failure,” council member Alexander said.
Habitat for Humanity developed the four lots it signed on to build. But Threshold had difficulties finding qualified buyers for its four lots.
“There were a number of lots that Habitat owned [that] they were able to develop,” Mayor Frank Friedman said. “All the other lots had to fit within the confines of the income structure. Well, typically if your income is in that range, you may not have the credit or the money for a down payment.”
The city said it couldn’t find potential buyers who had the required combination: People who had good credit and could afford the required down payment, and whose income fell below the limit.
Lexington had to send money back to the state, about $300,000 to $400,000, after failing to find enough qualified people, Friedman said.
Remaining lots were put on the open market. Once people built houses, their values were in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.
Habitat for Humanity has also been involved with the Greenhouse Village development, a neighborhood just outside city limits. The organization has built 19 homes and has four lots under construction. There are 16 lots that have yet to be developed.
To qualify for a Habitat home, a family must be in need of housing, must be able to pay a monthly mortgage and must be willing to help build the house. Household income must also fall below 80 percent of the area median income, based on family size. For example, a four-person household’s income can’t exceed $45,500.
Lexington resident Eric Lewis, who relocated here four years ago from Arkansas, will soon move into one of the Greenhouse Village homes that’s under construction. Until then, he’s living in a house that has water pouring into it whenever it rains because of a leaky roof.
“Once I leave … I don’t believe that house will be fit for someone else to stay there,” he said.
Section 8 apartments or upscale hotel?
Tim Robinson used to live in what was then known as the R.E. Lee Building in downtown Lexington when it was Section 8 housing.
“Well, some of [my time there] was good,” said Robinson, who moved to Lexington House Apartments. “[W&L] students came over once a month–the campus kitchen, they gave us food. That was a blessing. Some of the people–they were always sticking their nose in somebody’s business … but I loved it there.”
Built in 1926, it operated as a hotel on and off until the early 1980s, when it became Section 8 housing. The building was purchased in 2014 by Ugo Benincasa, who gutted it and turned it into an upscale hotel.
“It really was an eyesore,” said John Fix, who helped with plumbing work during the restoration. “It just wasn’t meant to be Section 8 housing. It was meant to be a grand hotel.”
Residents who lived there were forced to relocate, and they moved to a variety of places in Lexington and in the county, council member Alexander said. Some relocated to affordable apartment complexes in the city, while others moved to assisted living facilities or market-rate homes.
Robinson previously worked at the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery as a landscaper. But he lost his arm in a woodchipper over a decade ago. He got laid off because he couldn’t work anymore, and he needed housing support.
Not enough help
Some residents don’t want to live in apartment complexes that are designated as Section 8 housing.
They can seek financial help from the Rockbridge Area Rental Assistance Office, which administers the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. The choice vouchers cover the gap between what residents can pay and what the landlord is charging for a house that’s not designated as Section 8 housing.
Recipients can choose to live in Lexington, Buena Vista or the county.
The homes must meet certain safety and sanitation standards, and choice voucher recipients must be income-qualified. For example, income for a four-person household can’t exceed $28,450.
The choice voucher recipients must pay 30 to 40 percent of their monthly income for rent. The voucher program covers the rest.
“[The voucher] allows them to be out in society and not stereotyped,” said Andrea Stogdale, the housing supervisor for the rental assistance office.
The program is run in partnership with HUD and the Virginia Housing Development Authority. HUD releases funding to VHDA, which then divvies up the money to the public housing authorities located throughout the state.
Ninety-eight vouchers are in use in Rockbridge County, 42 in Buena Vista and 12 in Lexington, for a total of 152 vouchers. Stogdale can administer up to 179 vouchers. She is waiting for funding for 27 of the vouchers.
The choice voucher program has a waitlist of 265 people. In November 2017, the last time the office opened the waitlist, 319 people applied in a four-hour window. Stogdale said she has to make her way through the waitlist before allowing anyone else to apply.
“It’s taken forever,” she said. “And people have said they’ve waited three years, so it’s an extremely needed program for our area.”
If low-income people find houses they can afford to buy, they usually don’t have the money to fix them up.
There is some help available but not enough. The Threshold Housing Commission, a Lexington nonprofit organization, assists low- to moderate-income families to repair their homes.
Threshold chair Fred Kirchner said the nonprofit group wants to partner with other organizations to complete rehab projects.
Kirchner said one of the groups is Total Action for Progress, a community action agency based in Roanoke that offers home repair services. Threshold has already partnered with Habitat for Humanity in the past.
He said Threshold focuses on the structural basics, such as problems with roofs, porches and heating systems.
“We're after core issues of safety,” he said. “We can't go in and put in new carpet for everybody. That's not what we're here for. It's the bare necessities.”
Last year, Threshold worked with a group of W&L students to conduct a survey of five Lexington neighborhoods to determine rehabilitation needs. The sociology class concluded that Green Hill needed the most immediate housing repair assistance.
“People in Lexington ... are living in really, really poor housing conditions,” said W&L junior Anne Rodgers, a student in the class.
Rockbridge Area Habitat for Humanity also offers home repair services like exterior painting and handicap accessibility for a reduced price to low-income homeowners in the area.
To qualify, applicants must have a family income below 60 percent of the area median income, which is $34,140 for a four-person household. Applicants also must own and reside in a home, help with the repairs and make an up-front payment, which is determined by an income-based sliding scale.
The W&L effect
In 2014, the W&L Board of Trustees voted to require all third-year students to live on campus.
Steve McAllister, W&L’s treasurer and vice president for finance and administration, said the board’s decision was based in part on concern that students were living in unsafe conditions in houses off campus.
“Whether there were fires, or whether there was … a deck collapse … there were certainly some health and safety concerns that were part of the issue,” he said.
Leo Decanini, Habitat’s construction supervisor, said some landlords put their houses up for sale after the loss of about 400 student renters. But hardly anyone is buying the houses because they cost too much to fix up, he said.
“There’s no point in making them into rentals again because W&L still has all the juniors living on campus and are talking about moving the senior class on campus,” he said. “Just the threat of [senior housing] is hurting the market.”
W&L owns 12 houses on the corner of McLaughlin and Glasgow streets by the Lenfest Center for the Arts. The property would be converted into senior housing, if there is enough student interest, McAllister said.
The university is running focus groups with students to determine whether seniors would want to live on campus, he said.
W&L senior Layne Setash lived on campus during her junior year but now lives in town. She said she felt more secure last year because of the presence of the university’s public safety officers.
"We didn’t have to worry about remembering to lock doors in third-year,” she said.
So far, W&L hasn’t purchased the former Lexington Building Supply warehouse, which is closed and for sale. The building is across the street from the property W&L owns behind the Lenfest Center, McAllister said.
“We don’t own it and we keep getting asked about it, but nothing has ever been developed out of it,” he said.
Scott Berger, who co-owns Lexington Building Supply, said he’ll sell the warehouse to whoever offers the most money.
“We have several interested parties … one being W&L,” he said.
If W&L buys the warehouse, Lexington won’t get any tax revenue. That’s because W&L is a nonprofit institution that doesn’t pay property taxes. Churches and schools also don’t pay property taxes.
More than 65 percent of the value of buildings and land in Lexington is tax-exempt.
“Take all the church properties out and all the properties that W&L and VMI [Virginia Military Institute] own … What’s left?” asked Decanini.
No home at all
There aren’t any homeless shelters in the Rockbridge area, and officials don’t know exactly how many people are homeless.
“I think we’re all really used to homelessness being what we think of as big city homelessness, you know, a large population all together,” said Jen Handy, executive director of the Rockbridge Area Relief Association.
But in Rockbridge, homelessness occurs in less obvious ways, such as when people couch surf, camp outside or move in with family or friends.
People who are homeless must travel elsewhere, including to Staunton and Roanoke, to find temporary shelters and services.
“There aren’t hot meals every day [in Lexington],” Handy said. “It’s not a great place to be homeless and get back on your feet.”
Tony McFaddin, chief deputy of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, said many homeless people who’ve lived in the area are transient. He said people might walk through or stay for a night before leaving for another town.
The sheriff’s office sometimes gets complaints about people who are thought to be homeless.
RARA is part of the Valley Homeless Connection, a regional coalition under the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. The coalition works to prevent, identify and track cases of homelessness.
The Rockbridge association also focuses on eviction prevention. RARA works with churches to provide emergency financial assistance to residents who need help paying rent.
The Community Table for the Rockbridge area, located at 350 Spotswood Ave., also provides hot meals on Mondays and Wednesdays. The meals are free, but donations are accepted.
Handy said she thinks a well-run shelter with trained professionals could be successful in the Rockbridge area. But she said that a shelter could do more harm than good without the right infrastructure and resources.
“I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning people open up doors without proper training, resources or other things,” Handy said. “Operating a homeless shelter is not as easy as finding a place to shelter people.”
Neighborhoods are changing
Diamond Hill is a historically black neighborhood now dominated by rental property, said LeBlanc, chair of the Architectural Review Board.
Wealthy retirees are moving to Jackson Avenue, Jefferson Street and Main Street, she said. Residents who fall into the middle-class are moving to Diamond Hill and living in or renting out homes to students, pushing people with lower incomes out.
Houses around Jackson Avenue, Jefferson Street and Main Street average around $648,000, and can be higher. One house has a $1.29 million asking price.
“[Jackson Avenue] tends to be dominated by people who earned their livings elsewhere because the houses are so very expensive—so far above the average earning power in town,” LeBlanc said.
But now with half of the W&L student renters moving on campus, many houses in the Diamond Hill area are shifting back to single-family homes, realtor Giles said.
The single-family homes are being bought or rented by parents of VMI and W&L students who want property close to the universities, she said.
“We’re kind of transitioning … from landlords who have been renting to W&L students … to parents who are restoring or renovating for themselves” and their children, Giles said.
The dynamic makes it harder for someone like Stuples, the W&L dining facilities employee, who dreams of owning her own home.
She wants a house with a yard for her and her son, Nathan.
“When I get older, I can pass it on,” she said. “Nathan can inherit a nice home when it comes time.”
Owning a home also means security and empowerment for Stuples.
“You’re more responsible when you own a house,” she said. “It’s just planning for the future.”
Double major in Journalism and Politics.
Journalism major and Russian language minor.
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